Can animals really sense earthquakes?

Some records depict animals acting out of character before disaster strikes, is it just a coincidence?
24 August 2021


A dog shows off its puppy dog eyes



There’s long been a debate of whether animals like dogs can sense earthquakes or other natural disasters about to happen.

Can animals really tell when a storm is coming, or an earthquake?



Animal behaviour expert and author Jo Wimpenny, who’s just written a book looking into whether there’s any truth to the animals written about in our favourite childhood fairytales - Aesop’s fables, describes the difficulties of conducting research prior to and during a natural disaster, reminding physicist Jess Wade of more research... 

Jo - Hmm. I love this question. There are so many anecdotes on this topic. So many reports of people seeing animals fleeing from an area or doing something abnormal and then an earthquake happening, or then a big storm hitting. And I know of one study of frogs in Italy, they were be monitored for their breeding behavior anyway, and an earthquake hit, so that the researchers did have the pre-, the during, and the post data. And they found that 96% of the frogs abandoned the pond that they were in about five days before the earthquake hit. They left. And then they came back about 10 days later. So it does seem that they were responding to something, they were detecting something in their environment, but we don't know enough about what that would be. And we don't have the prospective controlled experiments, I think to be able to properly put that to bed, as you said.

Jess - I just wondered, it reminds me so much of that work led by Professor Perdita Barran at the University of Manchester, looking for early diagnosis of Parkinson's and doing it by scent. You know there are the phenomenal people whose noses are trained to be able to recognise changes in smell. And you can actually predict if someone has Parkinson's disease for which there are very few diagnostic tests by smelling them and you can get it super early. And I guess animals are very attuned to all of that.

Jo - And we have dogs. I mean, there's a big line of research in medical detection dogs. I think there are certain types of tumours where people produce compounds which dogs can detect on their breath. Animals have pretty incredible sensory abilities. I would say there's no reason that they can't respond to these things. But yeah, it's still a little bit of a grey area.

Eva - And people have even been doing studies using dogs to try and sniff out COVID. There's been a variety going through in the airport or possibly in hospitals or in the line for a club. People have all sorts of ideas of where these could be used.


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